Women are better at coding than men—if they hide their gender

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Women’s contributions to technology projects are appreciated, as long as people don’t realize the contributions are from women.

An astounding survey last year found that 92% of software developers are men but a new study suggests that the small percentage of women who are coding are really good at it. On GitHub, women’s contributions actually outnumber men’s—as long as they don’t actually identify themselves as women.

In a study published this week, a group of computer science students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and North Carolina State University examined how gender impacts the acceptance of contributions on the open source code repository site GitHub.

Surprisingly, our results show that women’s contributions tend to be accepted more often than men’s,” the study’s authors wrote. “However, when a woman’s gender is identifiable, they are rejected more often. Our results suggest that although women on GitHub may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless.”

In other words, if you’re a woman on GitHub, the best way to get your code out there is to hide the fact that you’re a woman.

The authors specifically examined “pull requests” on GitHub, programmer parlance for suggestions for fixes to existing code. They looked at the contributions of women and whether the women had gendered or gender-neutral profiles. They found that women’s fixes were more accepted than men’s for every programming language in the top ten. But when gender was identifiable, the acceptance rate for women’s code fixes dropped to 62.5% from 72%. On projects where the woman’s gender was obvious and she was an “outsider”—an anonymous online stranger rather than a regular contributor to a software project—the acceptance rate of suggestions dropped below the rate of men.

This, of course, is not surprising. Across industries—and especially in math and science fields—academic study has shown a preference for men in fields considered to be typically “male.” The GitHub study offers an update to the classic resume study, in which candidates examine the exact same resume, the only difference between them the gender of the applicant’s name. Overwhelmingly, both men and women choose the male candidate. But the GitHub study offers the kind of insight that only the anonymized internet can provide: given the chance to erase gender as a factor, women outperform men.

Those results are particularly impressive when you consider the dearth of female open source developers. One 2013 study of more more than 2000 open source developers who indicated a gender found that only 11.2% were women.

The researchers examined other potential causes for the findings. One explanation they floated is that the male-dominated open source environment weeds out lesser female programmers, who get discouraged by the disproportionate rate of rejection, leaving only the best female programmers on the site. Another potential explanation was that the type of fixes women suggested were different—they were lengthier and more substantive, perhaps making them more likely to be accepted.

But any explanation for why women perform better on GitHub still can not explain away the study’s most disturbing detail: concrete evidence that the only thing standing in the way of female programmers is their gender.

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